Elizabeth Dunn is a Ph.D. student in information science at the University of North Texas. She also works as the marketing and communications manager for the College of Graduate Studies at Tarleton State University, a member of the Texas A&M University System.
As a business communication instructor, Salesforce CRM administrator and online student, I am constantly thinking about email. To me, email is a reflection of the sender -- over the years, I’ve decided that I can tell quite a bit about a person just from the way he or she formats a message.
At work recently, I received an email from one of our highly respected, widely published faculty members, who was requesting a list of “perspective” students for her program to which she planned to send an email “complain.” (Regardless of her status in the scholarly community, based on these errors in her email, I couldn’t help but make a snap judgment as to how confident I was in her competency to send mass email campaigns to prospective students on behalf of the university.) To be fair, due to the ease of autocorrect and autofill, grammatical, spelling, punctuation and mechanical errors are rampant in text communication. No one is safe from the pitfalls of composition errors, but many of these errors can be caught easily with some proofreading before the send.
I’ve been to some marketing conferences where I’ve heard a few folks say that email is dead. I disagree, as I see an important place for it in contemporary and professional communications. (In fact, email is tremendously important for business, as the Direct Marketing Association estimates that targeted and segmented emails account for 58 percent of revenue.) Whichever side of the argument you fall on, it is difficult to argue that text communication has an important place in our digital communications. As students and scholars, we communicate via email, Canvas messages, discussion boards and many other places where we work online. We also send emails to communicate with prospective employers and those in our professional network. (See where I’m going with this?)
What do your emails say about you? While this blog post is directed at graduate students, I believe issues with professional messaging are widespread across any workscape. Sending good email is a skill that we can all be reminded of and improve upon. A well-crafted email sends a bigger message than just what's in the body of your message. Here are some tips:
Give your email address some (professional) thought. In my various jobs over the years, I’ve seen some downright horrifying email addresses. These questionable email addresses have ranged from cutesy to even sexual in nature. If you want to keep the email address that you had in high school or the one you use on a dating site (clue: it has a word like “gurl” or “baby” in the address), perhaps consider developing another email account for professional messaging that will encourage receivers to consider you seriously when your message lands in their inbox. Another thing about cutesy: be cautious with emoticons, as they can impact tone.
Consider your subject line. At work, I often prioritize messages in my inbox based on the subject line. The subject line is your first jump at a positive impression. It should communicate the importance and clarity of your message and at the same time be short and sweet. Additionally, try to avoid cryptic subject lines like “Question.” What is your message about? Unless you (strangely) want to be mysterious, tell the receiver of your message exactly why you’re contacting them with a short summation in the subject line.
Proofread, proofread, proofread. Business communication experts Guffey and Loewy recommend that writers spend 50 percent of the writing process on revising and proofreading. They stress that this stage is crucial even for short messages. As mentioned in my example with the well-respected faculty member, various typos, especially in what should be your domain of knowledge, can hurt your credibility, impact your reputation as someone who is cognizant of ever-important details and lead the reader to make assumptions of you which may not be accurate. Also, be sure to address the receiver by the correct name, spelled correctly! When it comes to titles, my rule is to always address someone with a doctoral degree as Dr. Last Name until that person explicitly tells you otherwise, especially in academia.
Be succinct. Recent studies show that the human attention span is short and getting shorter -- in fact, an article from 2015 estimated that currently, the human attention span is just eight seconds. (That means that our attention span is now less than that of a simple-minded goldfish, which has an attention span of nine seconds.) Researchers suggest that, thanks to technology and the ubiquitous nature of digital information, our brains are being conditioned to filter and scan. Therefore, if you want someone to read what you have to say, avoid sending flowery messages where you attempt to impress the reader with your command of the language or knowledge of quotes from influential people. Like in your research papers, master the art of being succinct! State what you need to state, using bullet points, numbering and paragraphs to guide the reader through the information you’re presenting or questions you’re asking.
Make the most of a signature block. This is easy to set up and is a great way to share your contact information with prospective employers and other people in your network. A signature block is built to automatically append to the very end of your message and can be as simple as your name and phone number, or extended to include other bits of your contact information. I even have my LinkedIn profile hyperlinked in my personal email signature block. This is a quick way to essentially share a digital business card. Furthermore, a signature block lets the receiver of your message know how you’d like to be addressed. For example, if your email account is registered to your formal name of Elizabeth but you always go by Liz, use Liz in your signature block instead.
What message are you really sending? Your message sends more than a question to your recipient -- it says volumes about you! Make a statement by mastering the art of professional messaging, and find yet another valuable skill for your career toolbox.
Do you have other ideas to improve email communication? Share them in the comments!